Ancient Africa

"History is grounded in geography and nowhere more so than in Africa," writes historian Henry Wilson. "There are few natural harbors and some of these have notably unproductive hinterlands. Africa's coast are the least indented of any continent's by rivers and estuaries, so that proportionably more territory is located far inland. And because the continent constitutes a vast plateau, Africa's rivers, although often navigable for long stretches inland, usually tumble over the edge toward the coastal plain and sea, presenting incoming vessels with falls and rapids only a little way inland." [Source: The Imperial Experience in Sub-Saharan Africa Since 1870 by Henry S. Wilson, 1977 University of Minnesota Press]

Africa's rugged geography has meant that getting from one place to another is difficult and cumbersome, a situation that remains true today. During the continent's early history, geography facilitated the creation of small, isolated cultures as opposed to large empires. The Sahara desert and unexplored seas kept Europeans, Asians and Arabs from setting on the African coast until a few centuries ago. And the lack of navigable rivers, in addition to malaria and other diseases, kept Europeans from exploring inland until the 19th century.

In many parts of Africa, men traditionally practiced cattle herding and women raised crops. Wealth was measured by the size of man's herd. People tended to invest their money in cattle rather than crops, because cattle survived better in droughts and floods, they could be transported to more favorable locations and could easily be traded while grains and crops where difficult to transport and often spoiled. Southern Africans didn't use the wheel or pack animals. Good were transported by canoe or on people's backs. Polygamy has been practiced in Africa since recorded time, partly because a man with many wives and children can raise more crops and animals and thus accumulate more wealth.

Good Websites Archaeology News Report ; : ; Archaeology in Europe ; Archaeology magazine ; HeritageDaily; Live Science

Early African Tribes

Roman-era image of an African

Before Europeans arrived it was estimated that there were something like 650 to 750 autonomous societies in Africa. Anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits grouped these societies into six major sub-Saharan cultural areas: 1) the Khoisan area of southern Africa; 2) the East Africa Cattle Area; 3) the Congo; 4) the East Horn, Egypt, Eastern Sudan, Western Sudan; 5) the Guinea Coast; and 6) Desert and North Africa. It must be emphasized that there is a great deal of diversity within these cultural groups. Anthropologists who have done detailed studies have found as many as a 100 "microregions" of varying sizes within one "macrogion," each with its own set of customs.

The cattle-herding Khoisan and hunter gather San (Bushmen) were the first inhabitants of southern Africa. The Khoi introduced the unique clicking language to the tribes of southern Africa but they were eventually absorbed into other cultures through intermarriage. The San held on to their traditional way of way of life until the 1980s and still remain as an ethnic group.

Many Africans — including the Kikuyu in Kenya and the Zulu in South Africa — speak Bantu languages. Bantu is a word that refers to a language group and a culture of cattle-herding people that most likely originated in West Africa. Spreading east and south over a 1,500 year period starting about 2,000 years ago, they displaced the Pygmies and Bushmen that occupied the land before them.

After the Bantu developed agriculture and herding their population expanded. Free from having to forage for food they were able to develop complex technologies and social organizations that gave them an edge over the people they conquered., namely the speakers of Pygmy and Khoisan languages.

The East African Cattle People have traditional been nomads who migrated with the seasons in search of grazing land for their cattle. Many of these people are now settled but cattle remains a symbol of wealth and defense against famine. Before Europeans some of these cattle people — the Buganda in present-day Uganda, the Tutis in Rwanda and ancient people of Zimbabwe — established kingdoms with a ruling aristocracy. The Nilotoc tribes such as the Masai, Luo and Sambura and Turkana originally came from the Nile Valley in southern Sudan.

The thick forest of the Congo Basin has created a diverse collection of isolated ethnic groups. The pygmies were the first people to inhabit this region, but over the years they were displaced by Bantu-speaking tribes who are now are the predominate groups. The two groups have traditionally had a symbiotic relationship in which the Bantu tribes raised crops which they used to feed themselves and trade with the Pygmies for game meat.

The West African tribes of the Guinea coast were similar to the tribes of the Congo except the higher productivity of their land enabled them to support more people and have more specialization. Commodities were also used as currency. Unlike the tribes in the east, men played a more active role in agriculture, which freed the women to become merchants in the large markets.

DNA Study of Ancient Sub-Saharan Africans

Egyptian-era image of a Libyan

In 2017, Harvard Medical School reported: “The first large-scale study of ancient human DNA from sub-Saharan Africa opens a long-awaited window into the identity of prehistoric populations in the region and how they moved around and replaced one another over the past 8,000 years. The findings, published in Cell by an international research team led by Harvard Medical School, answer several longstanding mysteries and uncover surprising details about sub-Saharan African ancestry—including genetic adaptations for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the first glimpses of population distribution before farmers and animal herders swept across the continent about 3,000 years ago."The last few thousand years were an incredibly rich and formative period that is key to understanding how populations in Africa got to where they are today," said David Reich, professor of genetics at HMS and a senior associate member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. "Ancestry during this time period is such an unexplored landscape that everything we learned was new." [Source: Harvard Medical School, September 21, 2017, ~]

“Reich shares senior authorship of the study with Ron Pinhasi of the University of Vienna and Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Tübingen in Germany. "Ancient DNA is the only tool we have for characterizing past genomic diversity. It teaches us things we don't know about history from archaeology and linguistics and can help us better understand present-day populations," said Pontus Skoglund, a postdoctoral researcher in the Reich lab and the study's first author. "We need to ensure we use it for the benefit of all populations around the world, perhaps especially Africa, which contains the greatest human genetic diversity in the world but has been underserved by the genomics community." ~

“Although ancient-DNA research has revealed insights into the population histories of many areas of the world, delving into the deep ancestry of African groups wasn't possible until recently because genetic material degrades too rapidly in warm, humid climates. Technological advances—including the discovery by Pinhasi and colleagues that DNA persists longer in small, dense ear bones—are now beginning to break the climate barrier. Last year, Reich and colleagues used the new techniques to generate the first genome-wide data from the earliest farmers in the Near East, who lived between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago. ~

“In the new study, Skoglund and team, including colleagues from South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya, coaxed DNA from the remains of 15 ancient sub-Saharan Africans. The individuals came from a variety of geographic regions and ranged in age from about 500 to 8,500 years old. The researchers compared these ancient genomes—along with the only other known ancient genome from the region, previously published in 2015—against those of nearly 600 present-day people from 59 African populations and 300 people from 142 non-African groups. Almost half of the team's samples came from Malawi, providing a series of genomic snapshots from the same location across thousands of years.” ~

Findings of DNA Study of Ancient Sub-Saharan Africans

Haplogroups ADN-Y in Africa

The main revelation drawn form the Harvard Medical School African DNA study seems to be that the adoption and widespread use of agriculture and livestock appears to have driven great migrations of people, in some cases causing the original inhabitants (hunter-gatherers) of very large area to be displaced by another group (agriculturalists and herders). The people that live in Malawi today, for example, appear to be completely unrelated to the ancient humans who lived in the same region a few thousand years ago, reflecting a much more dramatic migration than researchers had expected. As an illustration of how widespread the migrations were one Tanzanian herder was found to have descendants throughout Africa. [Source: Ben Panko,, September 21, 2017]

Harvard Medical School reported: “The time-series divulged the existence of an ancient hunter-gatherer population the researchers hadn't expected. When agriculture spread in Europe and East Asia, farmers and animal herders expanded into new areas and mixed with the hunter-gatherers who lived there. Present-day populations thus inherited DNA from both groups. The new study found evidence for similar movement and mixing in other parts of Africa, but after farmers reached Malawi, hunter-gatherers seem to have disappeared without contributing any detectable ancestry to the people who live there today. "It looks like there was a complete population replacement," said Reich. "We haven't seen clear evidence for an event like this anywhere else." [Source: Harvard Medical School, September 21, 2017, ~]

“The Malawi snapshots also helped identify a population that spanned from the southern tip of Africa all the way to the equator about 1,400 years ago before fading away. That mysterious group shared ancestry with today's Khoe-San (or Khoisan) people in southern Africa and left a few DNA traces in people from a group of islands thousands of miles away, off the coast of Tanzania. "It's amazing to see these populations in the DNA that don't exist anymore," said Reich. "It's clear that gathering additional DNA samples will teach us much more." "The Khoe-San are such a genetically distinctive people, it was a surprise to find a closely related ancestor so far north just a couple of thousand years ago," Reich added. The new study also found that West Africans can trace their lineage back to a human ancestor that may have split off from other African populations even earlier than the Khoe-San. ~

“The research similarly shed light on the origins of another unique group, the Hadza people of East Africa. "They have a distinct appearance, language and genetics, and some people speculated that, like the Khoe-San, they might represent a very early diverging group from other African populations," said Reich. "Our study shows that instead, they're somehow in the middle of everything." “The Hadza, according to genomic comparisons, are today more closely related to non-Africans than to other Africans. The researchers hypothesize that the Hadza are direct descendants of the group that migrated out of Africa, and possibly spread within Africa as well, after about 50,000 years ago. ~

“Scientists had predicted the existence of an ancient population based on the observation that present-day people in southern Africa share ancestry with people in the Near East. The 3,000-year-old remains of a young girl in Tanzania provided the missing evidence. Reich and colleagues suspect that the girl belonged to a herding population that contributed significant ancestry to present-day people from Ethiopia and Somalia down to South Africa. The ancient population was about one-third Eurasian, and the researchers were able to further pinpoint that ancestry to the Levant region. "With this sample in hand, we can now say more about who these people were," said Skoglund. The finding put one mystery to rest while raising another: Present-day people in the Horn of Africa have additional Near Eastern ancestry that can't be explained by the group to which the young girl belonged. ~

“Finally, the study took a first step in using ancient DNA to understand genetic adaptation in African populations.It required "squeezing water out of a stone" because the researchers were working with so few ancient samples, said Reich, but Skoglund was able to identify two regions of the genome that appear to have undergone natural selection in southern Africans. One adaptation increased protection from ultraviolet radiation, which the researchers propose could be related to life in the Kalahari Desert. The other variant was located on genes related to taste buds, which the researchers point out can help people detect poisons in plants. ~

“Reich also said he hopes the work reminds people that African history didn't end 50,000 years ago when groups of humans began migrating into the Near East and beyond. "The late Stone Age in Africa is like a black hole, research-wise," said Reich. "Ancient DNA can address that gap."” ~

Difficulty in Obtaining Ancient Human DNA in Africa

Ben Panko wrote in “Africa may be the continent where humans first arose, but compared to Europe, relatively little ancient DNA has been sequenced from there. This hasn’t been for lack of trying, says Jessica Thompson, an archaeologist at Emory University who focuses on ancient Africa, but rather due to the differences in environment between the continents. [Source: Ben Panko,, September 21, 2017 ***]

Distribution of Y-chromosome Haplogroup A in Africa

DNA can be a resilient molecule, surviving hundreds of thousands of years under the right conditions. But it can also be very fragile, subject to degrading in the presence of heat or moisture. Both of these are found in abundance in much of Africa, making it far more difficult to extract usable DNA to sequence. In contrast, scientists have sequenced DNA from Neanderthals in Europe that date back to more than 400,000 years, thanks to a climate that is generally cooler, drier and therefore better suited for preserving DNA. “For an Africanist, it’s frustrating, because we don’t have access to the same kinds of data that people who are studying the prehistory of say ancient Europe has,” Thompson says, “and I’ll admit I’ve been kind of jealous about that.” ***

“In Thompson’s field work in the southeastern country of Malawi, she recalled visiting sites that were at relatively high elevations that were noticeably cold, where skeletons had been found in the mid-20th century. Thompson’s efforts to track down these skeletons put her in touch with an already nascent effort by anthropologists and other researchers to fill the void of ancient African DNA by harnessing scientific advances. Thompson found two ancient human samples in another lab, but analyzing them produced inconsistent results. So she decided to return to the Malawi sites where they were dug up to look for more clues. She ended up uncovering three more sets of human remains, which contained DNA dating back as far as 8,000 years ago; she collected other samples from scientific archives in Malawi. ***

“Other researchers also sequenced eight more ancient samples from southern Malwai, which Thompson’s group included in a study published in the journal Cell. Time had degraded the samples, says Pontus Skoglund, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School who led the study. However, with persistence and advancing genetic technology, researchers were able to obtain at least 30,000 DNA base pairs from each sample—“more than enough to do powerful statistical analyses,” Skoglund says.” ***

Oldest DNA from Africa Offers Insights Into Migration in Africa and the Middle East

In 2018, Ann Gibbons wrote in Science: “About 15,000 years ago, in the oldest known cemetery in the world, people buried their dead in sitting positions with beads and animal horns, deep in a cave in what is now Morocco. These people were also found with small, sophisticated stone arrowheads and points, and 20th century archaeologists assumed they were part of an advanced European culture that had migrated across the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa. But now, their ancient DNA—the oldest ever obtained from Africans—shows that these people had no European ancestry. Instead, they were related to both Middle Easterners and sub-Saharan Africans, suggesting that more people were migrating in and out of North Africa than previously believed. “The findings are really exciting,” says evolutionary geneticist Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania, who was not part of the work. One big surprise from the DNA, she says, is that it shows that “North Africa has been an important crossroads … for a lot longer than people thought.” [Source: Ann Gibbons, Science, March 15, 2018]

“The origins of the ancient Moroccans, known as the Iberomaurusians because 20th century archaeologists thought they were connected to peoples of the Iberian Peninsula, have been a mystery ever since the Grotte des Pigeons cave was discovered near Oujda, Morocco, in 1908. Starting 22,000 or so years ago, these hunter-gatherers eschewed more primitive Middle Stone Age tools, such as larger blades used on spears, to produce microliths—small pointed bladelets that could be shot farther as projectile points or arrowheads. Similar tools show up earlier in Spain, France, and other parts of Europe, some associated with the famous Gravettian culture, known for its stone figurines of curvaceous women.

MtDNA haplogroup composition in sub-Saharan African countries

““The idea in the 1960s was that the Iberomaurusians must have got the microblades from the Gravettian,” says co-author and archaeologist Louise Humphrey of the Natural History Museum in London. During the ice age 20,000 years ago, sea level would have been lower and the Iberomaurusians were thought to have crossed the Mediterranean by boat at Gibraltar or Sicily.

“Humphrey and her Moroccan colleagues got a chance to test this view after they discovered 14 individuals associated with Iberomaurusian artifacts at the back of the Grotte des Pigeons cave in 2005. Paleogeneticists Marieke van de Loosdrecht and Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (SHH) in Jena, Germany, with Matthias Meyer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, used state-of-the-art methods to extract DNA from the ear bones of skeletons that had lain undisturbed since they were buried about 15,000 years ago. That’s a major technical feat because ancient DNA degrades rapidly in warm climates; these samples are almost twice as old as any other DNA obtained from humans in Africa.

“DNA in hand, Van de Loosdrecht and Choongwon Jeong, also of SHH, were able to analyze genetic material from the cell’s nucleus in five people and the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA from seven people. But they found no genetic tie to ancient Europeans. Instead, the ancient Iberomaurusians appear to be related to Middle Easterners and other Africans: They shared about two-thirds of their genetic ancestry with Natufians, hunter-gatherers who lived in the Middle East 14,500 to 11,000 years ago, and one-third with sub-Saharan Africans who were most closely related to today’s West Africans and the Hadza of Tanzania.

“The Iberomaurusians lived before the Natufians, but they were not their direct ancestors: The Natufians lack DNA from Africa, Krause says. This suggests that both groups inherited their shared DNA from a larger population that lived in North Africa or the Middle East more than 15,000 years ago, the team reports today in Science. As for the sub-Saharan DNA in the Iberomaurusian genome, the Iberomaurusians may have gotten it from migrants from the south who were their contemporaries. Or they may have inherited the DNA from much more ancient ancestors who brought it from the south but settled in North Africa where some of the earliest members of our species, Homo sapiens, have been found at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco.

“All this offers the first glimpse of the deep history of North Africans, who today have a large amount of European DNA. It suggests that there were more migrations between North Africa, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa than previously believed. “Cleary, human populations were interacting much more with groups from other, more distant areas than was previously assumed,” Krause says. Further studies will search for the people who gave rise to both the Iberomaurusians and the Natufians. “It’s a thrill to look for the first time at ancient DNA from prehistoric peoples from North Africa, a place where repeated waves of migration have made reconstruction of the deep population history based on living populations almost impossible,” says population geneticist David Reich of Harvard University, who was not part of the team.

Great Achievements by Ancient Africans

Nubia pyramids
On the great achievements that came out of Africa, Sydella Blatch wrote in the website for American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: “There are just a handful of scholars in this area. The most prolific is the late Ivan Van Sertima, an associate professor at Rutgers University. He once poignantly wrote that “the nerve of the world has been deadened for centuries to the vibrations of African genius” (1).[1 Van Sertima, I. “The Lost Sciences of Africa: An Overview.” Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern. 7 – 26 (1983)] [Source: Sydella Blatch, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology]

Math: The oldest example of arithmetic (6000 B.C.) was found in the Congo (Zaire). “Eight thousand years ago, people in present-day Zaire developed their own numeration system, as did Yoruba people in what is now Nigeria. The Yoruba system was based on units of 20 (instead of 10) and required an impressive amount of subtraction to identify different numbers. Scholars have lauded this system, as it required much abstract reasoning (3). [Source: 3 . Zaslavsky, C. “The Yoruba Number System.” Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern. 110 – 127 (1983)]

“Astronomy: A structure known as the African Stonehenge in present-day Kenya (constructed around 300 B.C.) was a remarkably accurate calendar (5). The Dogon people of Mali amassed a wealth of detailed astronomical observations (6). Many of their discoveries were so advanced that some modern scholars credit their discoveries instead to space aliens or unknown European travelers, even though the Dogon culture is steeped in ceremonial tradition centered on several space events. The Dogon knew of Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons, the spiral structure of the Milky Way and the orbit of the Sirius star system. Hundreds of years ago, they plotted orbits in this system accurately through the year 1990 (6). They knew this system contained a primary star and a secondary star (now called Sirius B) of immense density and not visible to the naked eye. [ 5. Lynch, B. M. & Robbins, L. H. Science 4343, 766 – 768 (1978). 6. Adams, H. “African Observers of the Universe: The Sirius Question.” Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern. 27 – 46 (1983)]

“Metallurgy and tools: Many advances in metallurgy and tool making were made across the entirety of ancient Africa. These include steam engines, metal chisels and saws, copper and iron tools and weapons, nails, glue, carbon steel and bronze weapons and art (1, 7). Advances in Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago surpassed those of Europeans then and were astonishing to Europeans when they learned of them. Ancient Tanzanian furnaces could reach 1,800°C — 200 to 400°C warmer than those of the Romans (8) [7. Brooks, L. African Achievements: Leaders, Civilizations and Cultures of Ancient Africa. (1971). 8. Shore, D. “Steel-Making in Ancient Africa.” Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern.157 – 162 (1983)]

“Navigation: Most of us learn that Europeans were the first to sail to the Americas. However, several lines of evidence suggest that ancient Africans sailed to South America and Asia hundreds of years before Europeans. Thousands of miles of waterways across Africa were trade routes. Many ancient societies in Africa built a variety of boats, including small reed-based vessels, sailboats and grander structures with many cabins and even cooking facilities. The Mali and Songhai built boats 100 feet long and 13 feet wide that could carry up to 80 tons (1). Currents in the Atlantic Ocean flow from this part of West Africa to South America. Genetic evidence from plants and descriptions and art from societies inhabiting South America at the time suggest small numbers of West Africans sailed to the east coast of South America and remained there (1). Contemporary scientists have reconstructed these ancient vessels and their fishing gear and have completed the transatlantic voyage successfully. Around the same time as they were sailing to South America, the 13th century, these ancient peoples also sailed to China and back, carrying elephants as cargo (1).” [1 Van Sertima, I. “The Lost Sciences of Africa: An Overview.” Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern. 7 – 26 (1983).

Lebombo Bone: World’s Oldest Math Tool

lembobo bone

The 43,000-year-old Lebombo Bone — a kind of tally stick — found in Swaziland is oldest known mathematical object According to CNN: “The Lebombo Bone is essentially a Baboon fibula that has tally marks on it.... It is conjectured to have been used for tracking menstrual cycles, because it has 29 marks on it.

In the 1970’s during the excavations of Border Cave, a small piece of the fibula of a baboon, the Lebombo bone, was found marked with 29 clearly defined notches, and, at 37,000 years old, it ranks with the oldest mathematical objects known. The bone is dated approximately 35,000 BC and resembles the calendar sticks still in use by Bushmen clans in Nimibia. The closest town to the Lebombo Mountains is Siteki, renowned for its Inyanga and Sangoma School, a government school to train healers and diviners. [Source: CNN, November 15, 2012]

Changes in the section of the notches indicate the use of different cutting edges, which the bone's discoverer, Peter Beaumont, views as evidence for their having been made, like other markings found all over the world, during participation in rituals. The bone is between 44,200 and 43,000 years old, according to 24 radiocarbon datings. This is far older than the Ishango bone with which it is sometimes confused. Other notched bones are 80,000 years old but it is unclear if the notches are merely decorative or if they bear a functional meaning. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to The Universal Book of Mathematics the Lebombo bone's 29 notches suggest "it may have been used as a lunar phase counter, in which case African women may have been the first mathematicians, because keeping track of menstrual cycles requires a lunar calendar". However, the bone is clearly broken at one end, so the 29 notches may or may not be a minimum number. In the cases of other notched bones since found globally, there has been no consistent notch tally, many being in the 1–10 range. +

Ishango Bone: 20,000 Baboon Bone Calculator from the Congo

Ishango bone

Named after the place where it was found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Ishango bone is a bone tool described as the world’s oldest calculator and the world’s first mathematical device. Dated to the Upper Paleolitic period, between 22,000 and 20,000 years ago, Ishango bone is a dark brown bone, likely the fibula of a baboon, with a sharp piece of quartz affixed to one end for engraving. Belgian geologist Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt found the bone in 1960 buried in layers of volcanic ashes on the shores of Lake Edward in the Ishango region in DRC, near the border with Uganda. The volcanic ash made it relatively easy to date. [Source: : Dr. Y., African Heritage, August 29, 2013, Wikipedia ~]

The Ishango bone is actually two baboon bones, one 10 centimeters and the other 14 centimeters long, with several incisions on each of their faces. The smallest of the two bones was the first to be discovered. Its existence was announced by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels This bone has several incisions organized in groups of three columns. I) The left column is divided in four groups, respectively possessing 19, 17, 13, and 11 notches, adding up to a total of 60 notches. The numbers 11, 13, 17 and 19 are the four prime numbers between 10 and 20. This constitutes a quad of prime numbers. II) The central column is divided in groups of 8 with some debate over how many notches there are (in the parenthesis, is the maximum number): 7 (8), 5 (7), 5 (9), 10, 8 (14), 4 (6), 6, 3. The minimal sum is 48, while the maximal sum is 63. III) The right column is divided into four groups, respectively possessing 9, 19, 21, and 11 notches, adding up to a total of 60. The second bone has not been well-studied. However, we know that it is composed of 6 groups of 20, 6, 18, 6, 20, and 8 notches. ~

According to the African Heritage blog: “The first bone has been subject to a lot of interpretation. At first, it was thought to be just a tally stick with a series of tally marks, but scientists have demonstrated that the groupings of notches on the bone are indicative of a mathematical understanding which goes beyond simple counting. In fact, many believe that the notches follow a mathematical succession. The notches have been interpreted as a prehistoric calculator, or maybe a lunar calendar. Jean de Heinzellin was the first to consider the bone as a vestige of interest in the history of mathematics. For instance, he noted that the numbers in the left column were compatible with a numeration system based on 10, since he saw that: 21 = 20 + 1, 19 = 20 – 1, 11 = 10 +1, and 9 = 10 -1. These numbers are also prime numbers between 10 and 20: 11, 13, 17, 19.” ~

A Belgian physical engineer proposed that the bones were a slide rule. Alexander Marshack has argued that they are the oldest known lunar calendar on earth. Claudia Zaslavsky thinks that the Ishango bone maker was a woman following the lunar phases to calculate her menstrual cycle. The second bone appears to have no connection with lunar calendar theory, and favors more the numeration system. ~

Iron-Making First Achieved in Africa?

Ishango bone markings

The generally accepted view is that Iron smelting was first developed by the Hittites, an ancient people that lived in what is now Turkey, around 1500 B.C.. Some scholars argue that iron-making was developed around the same time by Africans in Termit, Niger around 1500 B.C. and perhaps even earlier at other places in Africa, notably Central African Republic.

Heather Pringle wrote in a 2009 article in Science: “Controversial findings from a French team working at the site of boui in the Central African Republic challenge the diffusion model. Artifacts there suggest that sub-Saharan Africans were making iron by at least 2000 B.C.E. and possibly much earlier — well before Middle Easterners, says team member Philippe Fluzin, an archaeometallurgist at the University of Technology of Belfort-Montbliard in Belfort, France. The team unearthed a blacksmith's forge and copious iron artifacts, including pieces of iron bloom and two needles, as they describe in a recent monograph, Les Ateliers d'boui, published in Paris. "Effectively, the oldest known sites for iron metallurgy are in Africa," Fluzin says. Some researchers are impressed, particularly by a cluster of consistent radiocarbon dates. Others, however, raise serious questions about the new claims. [Source: Heather Pringle, Science, January 9, 2009]

According to a 2002 UNESCO report: “Africa developed its own iron industry some 5,000 years ago, according to a formidable new scientific work from UNESCO Publishing that challenges a lot of conventional thinking on the subject.iron_roads_lg.jpg Iron technology did not come to Africa from western Asia via Carthage or Merowe as was long thought, concludes "Aux origines de la métallurgie du fer en Afrique, Une ancienneté méconnue: Afrique de l'Ouest et Afrique centrale". The theory that it was imported from somewhere else, which - the book points out - nicely fitted colonial prejudices, does not stand up in the face of new scientific discoveries, including the probable existence of one or more centres of iron-working in west and central Africa andthe Great Lakes area. [Source: Jasmina Sopova, Bureau of Public Information, The Iron Roads Project. Launched by UNESCO in 1991 as part of the World Decade for Cultural Development (1988-97)]

“The authors of this joint work, which is part of the "Iron Roads in Africa" project, are distinguished archaeologists, engineers, historians, anthropologists and sociologists. As they trace the history of iron in Africa, including many technical details and discussion of the social, economic and cultural effects of the industry, they restore to the continent "this important yardstick of civilisation that it has been denied up to now," writes Doudou Diène, former head of UNESCO's Division of Intercultural Dialogue, who wrote the book's preface.

“But the facts speak for themselves. Tests on material excavated since the 1980s show that iron was worked at least as long ago as 1500 BC at Termit, in eastern Niger, while iron did not appear in Tunisia or Nubia before the 6th century BC. At Egaro, west of Termit, material has been dated earlier than 2500 BC, which makes African metalworking contemporary with that of the Middle East.

“The roots of metallurgy in Africa go very deep. However, French archaeologist Gérard Quéchon cautions that "having roots does not mean they are deeper than those of others," that "it is not important whether African metallurgy is the newest or the oldest" and that if new discoveries "show iron came from somewhere else, this would not make Africa less or more virtuous." "In fact, only in Africa do you find such a range of practices in the process of direct reduction [a method in which metal is obtained in a single operation without smelting],and metal workers who were so inventive that they could extract iron in furnaces made out of the trunks of banana trees," says Hamady Bocoum, one of the authors.

Africans Invent Steel 1,900 Years before Europeans

The Haya people on the western shore of Lake Victoria in Tanzania made medium-carbon steel in preheated, forced-draft furnaces between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago. The person usually given credit with inventing steel is German-born metallurgist Karl Wilhelm who used an open hearth furnace in the 19th century to make high grade steel. The Haya made their own steel until the middle of the middle 20th century when they found it was easier to make money from raising cash crops like coffee and buy steel tools from the Europeans than it was to make their own. [Source: Time magazine, September 25, 1978]

The discovery was made by anthropologist Peter Schmidt and metallurgy professor Donald Avery, both of Brown University. Very few of the Haya remember how to make steel but the two scholars were able to locate one man who made a traditional ten-foot-high cone shaped furnace from slag and mud. It was built over a pit with partially burned wood that supplied the carbon which was mixed with molten iron to produce steel. Goat skin bellows attached to eight ceramic tubs that entered the base of the charcoal-fueled furnace pumped in enough oxygen to achieve temperatures high enough to make carbon steel (3275 degrees F). [Ibid]

While doing excavations on the western shore of Lake Victoria Avery found 13 furnace nearly identical to the one described above. Using radio carbon dating he was astonished to find that the charcoal in the furnaces was between 1,550 and 2,000 years old. [Ibid]

John H. Lienhard at the University of Houston wrote: “The Hayas made their steel in a kiln shaped like a truncated upside-down cone about five feet high. They made both the cone and the bed below it from the clay of termite mounds. Termite clay makes a fine refractory material. The Hayas filled the bed of the kiln with charred swamp reeds. They packed a mixture of charcoal and iron ore above the charred reeds. Before they loaded iron ore into the kiln, they roasted it to raise its carbon content. The key to the Haya iron process was a high operating temperature. Eight men, seated around the base of the kiln, pumped air in with hand bellows. The air flowed through the fire in clay conduits. Then the heated air blasted into the charcoal fire itself. The result was a far hotter process than anything known in Europe before modern times.

“Schmidt wanted to see a working kiln, but he had a problem. Cheap European steel products reached Africa early in this century and put the Hayas out of business. When they could no longer compete, they'd quit making steel. Schmidt asked the old men of the tribe to recreate the high tech of their childhood. They agreed, but it took five tries to put all the details of the complex old process back together. What came out of the fifth try was a fine, tough steel. It was the same steel that'd served the subsaharan peoples for two millinea before it was almost forgotten.

10,000-Year-Old Graveyard From Wet, Green Sahara

Eliza Strickland wrote in Discover News:“In an arid and lifeless stretch of the Sahara, archaeologists have discovered a massive graveyard and remnants of early settlements that hark back to Stone Age days when the desert was wet, green, and habitable. Researchers say the find is a striking reminder that climates and environments can shift drastically over the geologically short time period of 10,000 years. [Source: Eliza Strickland, Discover News, August 14, 2008 =||=]

“In an area of Sahara that’s known to nomads as the “desert within a desert,” researchers found evidence of thriving prehistoric cultures and rich ecosystems on the edge of a lake. There were also hundreds of animal bones. In addition to antelope and giraffe, [lead researcher Paul] Sereno quickly recognized the remains of water-adapted creatures like crocodiles and hippos, then turtles, fish, and clams. “Everywhere you turned, there were bones belonging to animals that don’t live in the desert,” said Sereno. “I realized we were in the Green Sahara” =||=

“The cemetery was found in 2000 when Sereno, a paleontologist by training, was hunting for dinosaur fossils in the dunes. Subsequent expeditions revealed not only a graveyard, but also refuse mounds and other indicators of two permanent settlements, one dating from the Sahara’s wettest period around 10,000 years ago, and the second from another fecund era that began around 7,000 years ago. =||=

“The initial inhabitants, the Kiffian culture, were tall hunters of wild game who also fished with harpoons carved from animal bone. Later, a more lightly built people, the Tenerians, lived there, hunting, fishing and herding cattle. An examination of their fossilized skeletons indicated that both cultures lived and ate relatively well [The New York Times]. Researchers believe that the Tenerians left around 4,500 years ago when weather patterns shifted and pushed seasonal monsoons farther South, causing the region’s lakes and wetlands to dry up. =||=

“The report, published in the journal PLoS ONE, details findings from some of the 200 graves already discovered. “The most amazing find so far is a grave with a female and two children hugging each other. They were carefully arranged in this position. This strongly indicated they had spiritual beliefs and cared for their dead,” says [researcher Elena] Garcea [New Scientist].”

Stone-Age Skeletons Unearthed In Sahara Desert

In 2013, archaeologists announced that they had found 20 Stone-Age skeletons in and around a rock shelter in Libya’s Sahara desert. The skeletons were between 8,000 and 4,200 years old, meaning the burial site had been used for thousands of years. “It must have been a place of memory,” study co-author Mary Anne Tafuri, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge said. “People throughout time have kept it, and they have buried their people, over and over, generation after generation.” The findings, which were published in an article in the March issue of the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, suggest the culture changed with the climate. [Source: Tia Ghose, Livescience, March 7, 2013]

Tia Ghose of Livescience wrote: “About 15 women and children were buried in the rock shelter, while five men and juveniles were buried under giant stone heaps called tumuli outside the shelter during a later period, when the region turned to desert. From about 8,000 to 6,000 years ago, the Sahara desert region, called Wadi Takarkori, was filled with scrubby vegetation and seasonal green patches. Stunning rock art depicts ancient herding animals, such as cows, which require much more water to graze than the current environment could support, Tafuri said.

“Tafuri and her colleague Savino di Lernia began excavating the archaeological site between 2003 and 2006. At the same site, archaeologists also uncovered huts, animal bones and pots with traces of the earliest fermented dairy products in Africa. To date the skeletons, Tafuri measured the remains for concentrations of isotopes, or molecules of the same element with different weights. The team concluded that the skeletons were buried over four millennia, with most of the remains in the rock shelter buried between 7,300 and 5,600 years ago. The males and juveniles under the stone heaps were buried starting 4,500 years ago, when the region became more arid. Rock art confirms the dry up, as the cave paintings began to depict goats, which need much less water to graze than cows, Tafuri said. The ancient people also grew up not far from the area where they were buried, based on a comparison of isotopes in tooth enamel, which forms early in childhood, with elements in the nearby environment.

“The findings suggest the burial place was used for millennia by the same group of people. It also revealed a divided society. “The exclusive use of the rock shelter for female and sub-adult burials points to a persistent division based on gender,” wrote Marina Gallinaro, a researcher in African studies at Sapienza University of Rome, who was not involved in the study, in an email to LiveScience. One possibility is that during the earlier period, women had a more critical role in the society, and families may have even traced their descent through the female line. But once the Sahara began its inexorable expansion into the region about 5,000 years ago, the culture shifted and men’s prominence may have risen as a result, Gallinaro wrote. The region as a whole is full of hundreds of sites yet to be excavated, said Luigi Boitani, a biologist at Sapienza University of Rome, who has worked on archaeological sites in the region but was not involved in the study. The area is an untapped treasure,” Boitani said.

5,000-Year-Old Cemetery Found Under a Megalith Circle Near Lake Turkana in Kenya

In a study published December 8, 2022 in the journal Antiquity, scientists described a circle of megaliths marking the location of a “monumental” ancient cemetery, according to a new study near the shoreline Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, Shallow excavations of the Jarigole pillar site in the 1980s and ’90s concluded that the area was used as a secondary burial site, a place where the bones and fragmentary remains of the deceased were buried long after death. Digging deeper, archaeologists found evidence that forced them re-evaluate their initial conclusion. [Source: Aspen Pflughoeft, Miami Herald, December 15, 2022]

Archaeologists re-excavated the “megalithic” pillar site at Lake Turkana, the study said. Their excavation uncovered a large cavity with the remains of nine bodies buried about 5,000 years ago. These bodies were buried with accessories shortly after their deaths. In one burial, researchers found over a hundred beads made of amazonite, a blue-green gemstone, around the neck and chest of the deceased, the study said. The beads may have formed a necklace. Photos offer one possible reconstruction of the jewelry. Another burial contained over 300 small beads made of ostrich eggshells. These beads appeared to come from a bracelet that still encircled the deceased’s wrist, the study said.

These bodies were buried at the deepest portions of the cemetery cavity, researchers said. Atop the burials, where shards of “deliberately broken pots,” ceramic figures, charcoal and fragmentary remains, primarily teeth and hand bones. Photos show the animal and phallus-shaped ceramics. Archaeologists concluded that the cemetery was a preplanned site used for burying people soon after they died, the study said. The mobile herding groups that lived near Lake Turkana 5,000 years ago “must have been within a few days’ walk from a pillar site to enable these burials,” researchers said. Alternatively, the herders found “funerary rituals ... important enough for people to cease other activities and travel whenever a death occurred.” In this way, the Lake Turkana cemetery “may have helped unite dispersed and potentially diverse groups of people,” archaeologists said. Lake Turkana is about 550 miles (345 miles) northwest of Nairobi.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2024

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